Review: Phase IV

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Saul Bass’s first feature film seems consciously to take as its premise the conviction of the mythical Dr. Nils Hellstrom that insects, given the opportunity, will inherit the earth. Phase IV offers a more startling hypothesis than The Hellstrom Chronicle, however, suggesting a set of circumstances in which ants, their capacity for organization developed into an awesome organizational intelligence, no longer need to wait for humanity to pass away, but set out to take the earth by force. Some of the advertising for the film has stated that the ants are controlled from Outer Space, but there is nothing in the movie that quite justifies this description. The only information the film gives us about the ants’ sudden acquisition of technical and tactical intelligence is that it occurs as the result of an anticipated change, implicitly associated with some astronomical event. When a biological imbalance—characterized by a decrease in ant-predators and an increase in ant population and aggression—occurs in an Arizona desert, a renowned biologist and an accomplished data systems analyst set up a research lab in a prefabricated geodesic dome in the affected area to pursue means of combating the situation.

The film evolves through three numerically labeled “phases” of the competition for supremacy, leading up to the titular “Phase IV,” which we never see. It is somehow to be expected that a celebrated title designer like Bass should structure his first feature film as a protracted main title sequence, allowing the final credits to supersede the anticipated climax. There is a precedent, however, for making an entire film serve as prologue to an event which remains only suggested: Kubrick’s 2001, the spectre of whose influence still holds sway over science fiction films, does precisely that. Bass appears considerably indebted to Kubrick’s magnum opus, with the monolithic design of the ants’ towers, frequently shot from low angles; the continuity’s insistence upon sunrise, moonrise, earthrise to provide transitional shots; James Lesko (Michael Murphy) emphatically throwing the helmet of his hard suit into the air. All of this could be taken as accident, hommage, or gentle parody; but the film’s ending, its most unabashedly Kubrickian touch, doesn’t work on any of these levels. As “Phase IV” begins and the film ends, we are not sure whether the “change” undergone by Lesko and Kendra (Lynne Frederick) in the ants’ chamber is meant to represent a conquest of humanity by the ants or an ultimate alliance of the two, but it is quite clear that Bass regards his ants as some kind of liberating intelligence which can be imparted to human beings through a mystical transference. It’s a freaky idea and, as such, it seems quite out of place in a picture which consistently mitigates its freakishness with cold credibility. It’s a pity that this terribly derivative cop-out of a finale ends an otherwise gripping and well-developed film.

In almost every aspect, of course, Phase IV has its obvious antecedents (pardon the pun): Them!, The Naked Jungle, The Hellstrom Chronicle, The Andromeda Strain. But, except for the final concession to 2001, it rises above its seemingly inevitable thematic eclecticism to achieve a stunning style uniquely its own.

Phase IV is clearly a designer’s film, with a tremendous integrity of composition. The mise-en-scène is based on circles: the sun and moon, the scientists’ geodesic dome, the grassy meadow geometrically laid waste by the ants in a perfect circle, the ants’ crystal-coated heat reflector towers ominously encircling the dome, circles representing people in the ants’ “message” to Lesko’s computer, circular tunnels in the ant chambers balancing circular portholes in the lab. With the pattern of roundness so clearly established, the stark, squared-off towers of the ants’ architecture take on an important and threatening significance which all but overrides the Kubrick déjà vu prompted by first sight of their design.

Phase IV is also one of the most chromatically exciting films of this year. With the memory of the sequence in which a chemical spray dyes literally everything yellow still haunting my mind, my reaction to the first amber traffic light I encountered after leaving the theatre was far from casual. The cinematography credit is shared by Dick Bush and Ken Middleham, the latter responsible for the insect sequences which create most of the film’s tension. Closeup and macrophotography frequently enlarge the ants so we can study their actions, search their faces for expressions, compare them inevitably with more familiar human compositions: crowd scenes, work scenes, conferences, even fistfights and funerals are played out with ants instead of people as the principals. Yet it is when the ants are normal size on the screen that they are really the most terrifying, as when they attack and devour in seconds a struggling desert rat, zip lightly at lightning speed over Kendra’s legs, or swarm into the mantrap where Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) lies helpless. One of the film’s most fascinating slow chills is clearly Middleham’s work, a montage depicting the ants’ rapid adaptation to the yellow insecticide. Each ant that takes hold of a lump of the stuff lives a little longer, moves a little further with it: soon they are crawling all over the chemical, even eating bits of it; and finally a queen ant deposits a yellow egg. “We give them yellow chemicals,” says Hubbs, “and they respond with yellow creatures.”

Saul Bass has not, to be sure, sacrificed direction for the sake of design. Though Phase IV is hardly an actor’s film—Michael Murphy’s laid-back acting style, so enjoyably effective in his Frank Bullitt parody in Brewster McCloud, is tiredly affected here; Lynne Frederick, with the excuse that her character is supposed to be in shock, remains pretty vacant for the entire film; only Davenport is solid—Bass demonstrates in at least two fine sequences a genuine talent for getting the most from his players. In one scene, an ant that has got into the lab creeps slowly over Kendra’s body, making its way under her clothing until it reaches her face; she awakes and, far from emitting the seemingly inevitable scream which is already building in the audience’s minds, confronts the creature coldly, without a move, and demands that it go away. Later, in a breathtakingly outré chase sequence, Dr. Hubbs, delirious with formic poisoning after severe ant-bites, demolishes the lab’s supply room trying to find and kill one ant. Two types of confrontation, inspiredly realized, in a film whose every theme and image is confrontation on all levels.

The film’s appropriate emblem, now familiar to anyone who looks at the ads, is a shot of ants emerging from a burrow they have made in the palm of a dead man’s hand. This Buñuelesque wet dream provides a chilling metaphor for the ants’ adaptability, their preeminence over humankind, with a power that far overshadows the weakness of the film’s finale.

PHASE IV
Direction: Saul Bass. Screenplay: Mayo Simon. Cinematography: Dick Bush. Production design: John Barry. Insect sequences: Ken Middleham. Music: Brian Gascoigne.
The players: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, Alan Gifford, Robert Henderson.

© 1974 Robert C. Cumbow